“And when you look into her eyes, you won’t believe
The way she’s always paying for a debt she never owes
And a silent wind still blows that only she can hear and so she goes”– Wildflower (Skylark)
I sat next to my patient’s bed. Well, he became my patient only 30 minutes ago after being brought in found unconscious in a cold granite stairwell. The last trauma alert of my call on a busy but warm weekend. He had suffered a massive stroke and fallen down one short flight of stairs. He had lain in that stairwell for hours by the condition of his hands and arms, before being found by one of the evening custodians.
Once we learned that he was beyond our care and we didn’t know his name-he didn’t carry any identification that we could find, he was placed in this small hospital room. No need for ICU, no need for anything except comfort care as was decided. The social worker is trying to find out who he is and if there is any family.
I sat next to his bed and looked at his hands. They were brown with fingernails encrusted by dirt. I looked at his small, thin frame that reminded me of hundreds of men that I had treated in the Veterans Hospital. I looked at his gray beard, long gray hair and deeply sunburned face. I looked into his dark brown eyes with pupils that didn’t respond to the penlight that I had used to check his pupillary response (one of those routine neurological tests). He’s right here and I belong right here. I won’t let him die alone. I am present. He’s not a stranger, he is every patient who comes under my care and soon every person that I will minister to.
He smelled slightly of cigarette smoke as he lay on his back wearing the regulation hospital jonnie that almost suited his coloring. He looked to be about 50 years old and I couldn’t help but wonder whose brother, father or son he might be. Who could be so cold as to not want to know where he was and what he was doing? Perhaps, he removed himself from their lives because of what unknown demon pushed him away. Here I sat, the trauma surgeon just post call, wondering about these matters. I am just another human being sitting next to a human being, a miracle of perfection in every way that stops me at times. This man is here to stop my world in this moment.
Perhaps he was extremely angry and difficult to love, or even be around, for those who might have been in his life. Perhaps he had an addiction that prevented anyone from reaching him. I thought of all of those questions in this time as I sit in a chair next to the window as the nurses looked at me with questions. “Why are you here?” “Don’t you have anything else to do?” Who gave you the right to determine where I should be or what I should be doing? The noise from the nursing station filtered in when the laughter and joking began.
I am here in this room because my patients do not ever die alone. I am not much of a human being but I will not abandon a patient. From the time I received my medical degree, I have never allowed a patient to die alone. If there is no family or friends present, I am present. As I go through this life, everyone is my friend or no one is my friend; it doesn’t make much difference. Though my friendship is often thrown away these days, I am present. I am here and this patient will not die alone; not on my watch. In the next instant, I heard him leave with his last breath. As I held his hand in mine, I feel him leave. This is my gift.